GO Transit Service Changes Effective September 3, 2019

After the flurry of activity about rumoured widespread cuts to GO Transit’s bus service, the changes announced for September 3 are all “good news”. Whether there is “another shoe to drop” later in the fall remains to be seen. So far, these are not the moves of an agency about to make widespread route cuts.

Bus Routes

Seasonal bus service will end on 12 Niagara Falls. Effective Labour Day weekend, weekday express service will end, and weekend express service will be cut back to every two hours. The weekend express service will end at Thanksgiving.

School trips will be restored on the following routes:

  • 15 Brantford/Burlington
  • 25 Waterloo/Mississauga
  • 29 Guelph/Mississauga
  • 45-46-47-48 Highway 407 West
  • 51-52-54 Highway 407 East
  • 88 Peterborough/Oshawa
  • 93 UOIT/Scarborough

The 60 Canada’s Wonderland route will not return, and riders are encouraged to use TTC or GO services to reach York Region Transit Route 20.

In the announcement of restored and extended service on the Stouffville corridor, there is a note:

Evening bus service will continue to help you transition back to the train.

This implies that the bus service will disappear after the transition is complete, but there is no effective date for this.

Rail Corridors

On the rail network, there are many changes with new trips and hours of service on five corridors.

Lakeshore West

  • Service at West Harbour Station in Hamilton will be doubled to four trips each way from the current two.
    • In the morning peak, two trains that now originate at Aldershot will begin at West Harbour departing at 7:09 and 7:49 am. These are added to departures at 6:09 and 6:39 am.
    • In the afternoon peak, a new train will leave Union at 4:45 pm, run express to Clarkson and then local to West Harbour arriving at 5:57 pm.
    • The 6:30 pm train from Union which now ends at Aldershot will be extended to West Harbour arriving at 7:42 pm.
    • The other two PM peak trips to West Harbour leave Union at 4:00 and 5:15 pm.
  • Two Oakville trips will be extended to Aldershot leaving Union at 3:13 and 6:15 pm.
  • The 8:32 am eastbound train from Oakville will be extended from 10 to 12 cars to add capacity.

In what must be the most over-hyped part of the entire announcement, train service to Niagara Falls will run every day all year. However, weekday service remains one train each way, and otherwise travel between the Falls and Toronto will use buses for the portion of the trip beyond Burlington GO. The weekday trains serve West Harbour Station in Hamilton.

  • The morning commuter train leaves Niagara Falls GO (VIA) Station at 5:19 am arriving at Union at 7:50 am.
  • The afternoon train leaves Union at 5:15 pm arriving at Niagara Falls at 7:47 pm.

Weekend service that is now seasonal will become permanent. Note that these trains do not serve West Harbour, but run express between St. Catharines and Burlington.

  • Trains to Niagara Falls from Union depart at 9:00 am, 4:18 pm and 8:10 pm.
  • Trains to Union from Niagara Falls depart at 8:30 am, 11:30 am, 7:20 pm and 11:00 pm.

Lakeshore East

There are small changes to the Lakeshore East schedule:

  • New eastbound trips will leave Union at 2:58 and 3:28 pm running local to Oshawa arriving there at 3:56 and 4:26 pm.
  • A new westbound trip will leave Oshawa at 4:48 pm running local to Union arriving there at 5:50 pm.
  • The train which now leaves Oshawa westbound at 1:52 pm running express to Union will now depart at 1:53 and will stop at Whitby, Ajax and Pickering, then express to Union.

Kitchener

  • The train which formerly started eastbound from Mount Pleasant at 9:00 am will now originate in Kitchener at 7:57 am.
  • The 12:53 pm train westbound from Union will now run through to Kitchener arriving at 2:47 pm.
  • The train which formerly started eastbound from Mount Pleasant at 3:52 pm will now originate in Kitchener at 2:57 pm.
  • The 6:00 pm Kitchener train will now run express to Bramalea then local to Kitchener arriving there at 7:47 pm.
  • A new 5:45 pm train from Union will make all local stops to Bramalea.
  • From 6:53 pm hourly westbound trains run at least to Mount Pleasant with some continuing to Guelph or Kitchener.
    • The 6:53 train will run to Kitchener arriving at 8:47 pm.
    • A new train at 9:53 pm will run to Kitchener arriving at 11:47 pm.
    • A new train at 10:53 pm will run to Guelph arriving at 12:22 am.
  • A new train from Kitchener at 8:57 pm will arrive at Union at 10:51 pm.

Other schedule changes will reflect actual operating conditions and will adjust departure times earlier or later. Consult the schedule for details.

Finally, some train lengths will be adjusted to 6 cars:

  • The 9:48 am westbound train from Union
  • The 11:00 am eastbound train from Mount Pleasant
  • The 2:57 pm eastbound train from Kitchener

As a result of the new schedule, eastbound trains originating at Kitchener will run at:

  • 5:20 am, 5:45, 6:10, 6:50, 7:15, 7:57 (new), 2:57 pm (new), 8:57 (new)

Westbound trains running beyond Georgetown will leave Union bound for Kitchener (except as noted) at:

  • 12:53 pm (new), 3:35, 4:50, 5:27, 6:00, 6:53, 9:53 (new), 10:53 (Guelph, new)

Stouffville

On the current schedule, train service southbound to Union ends with the 3:31 pm trip from Mount Joy Station. The last northbound trip to Lincolnville leaves Union at 7:10 pm and the last Mount Joy trip leaves at 8:00 pm.

On the new schedule, southbound train service continues to end at 3:31 pm, but it resumes at 9:31 pm for three trips (hourly to 11:31 pm). The last northbound Lincolnville train remains at 7:10 pm, but train service to Mount Joy at 8:15 pm and hourly thereafter. The 11:15 pm train runs through to Lincolnville.

While this is some improvement, it is still a far cry from frequent, bi-directional all day rail service.

Two trains will be changed to six-car consists:

  • The 12:15 pm trip northbound from Union
  • The 1:31 pm trip southbound from Mount Joy

Barrie

The schedule for this corridor will not change, but some train lengths will be modified to better match demand.

  • The weekday 7:05 pm train from Union will be extended from six to ten cars.

The following trains will only be six cars long:

  • Weekdays:
    • 7:40, 8:40, 9:40 and 10:40 pm northbound from Union
    • 8:41, 9:41 and 10:41 pm southbound from Aurora
  • Weekends:
    • 11:40 am, 2:00 pm and 6:20 pm northbound from Union
    • 3:01 and 7:21 pm southbound from Aurora
    • 4:20 pm southbound from Allandale Waterfront

The full set of current and future schedules is available on the GO Transit website.

Comfirm or Deny: Big Changes Coming to GO Bus Service

Over the past weekend, a post appeared briefly on Facebook describing proposed changes to GO Transit bus service that were presented to ATU Local 1587 members on Wednesday, July 17. Normally I would take info like this with a grain of salt based on decades of hearing various half-baked stories about TTC plans that pop up from railfan speculation and internal TTC rumours. However, this was too detailed a list and from a first-hand source, and it cannot be ignored.

Updated July 23, 2019 at 8:55 am: The following email was sent to me by ATU 1587 who represent the GO Transit Workers:

A.T.U. Local 1587 was not aware of a posting on social media of service cuts produced by Metrolinx. It was brought to our attention from you, Steve. Thank you.

Metrolinx has however, brought to the union, approx. a month ago, of service cuts in bus that affected Beaverton, Oshawa, Waterloo, Bolton, Cambridge.

Metrolinx is trying to reduce bus service, and force passengers onto trains, which means less local access for our passengers. If there is local transit, then they will have to take that system and  transfer once they are close to a GO station, if not then they will have to use their personal vehicle.

Our members provide an excellent service overall. We don’t however, create the schedules of where we go or don’t go. Our members have voiced their disbelief about the cuts to trips not only for our seniors that use our service for appointments, but our university students as well. Everyone who uses GO Transit/Metrolinx is using us for a reason. Our members are proud of what they do, helping those with disabilities, seniors, children, etc. The pride does not stop at our drivers. Everyone from plant maintenance to station attendants, to our coach tech’s (mechanics), transit safety officers, OFPT. We are all proud of the job we do for the public, our passengers.

Thank you,

Christine Broeze
President/Business Agent
A.T.U. Local 1587

Updated 4:44 pm July 22: Metrolinx claims that the information posted on Facebook is not true.

The rumours are not accurate.

Buses form a vital connection between trains and communities not connected to train service or with limited train service.

Buses will always be an important part of our regional transportation plan. In fact, we are actively recruiting bus drivers to join our team.

We currently have a fleet of 532 buses and approximately 420 are used for service. We have more buses on the road today than we ever have and every year since our existence they have increased.

We are always monitoring our services to ensure we are making the best use of our resources.

We are embarking on the largest expansion of rail service in our history.

At times, when new train service is introduced it makes sense to redeploy bus services to other communities. Trains can carry far more passengers and shorten the trip.

It is difficult for us to comment on the presentation made to union members as we were not there. [Email from Fannie Sunshine 4:35 pm, July 22]

Original post below:

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Metrolinx Board Meeting: February 7, 2019 (Updated)

Updated February 10, 2019 at 9:00 am: Notes from the Board meeting have been added at the beginning of this article.

Relief Line Business Case

When the agenda was released, the Relief Line report created quite a stir with an apparent shift in Metrolinx’ position on the staging of subway expansion projects. Where “relief” taking precedence over the Yonge north extension only referred to the southern section (Pape to Osgoode), Metrolinx now shows a shortfall in capacity if the northern section (Danforth to Sheppard) is missing from the network.

This prompted a letter from Frank Scarpitti, Mayor of Markham and Chair of the York Region Rapid Transit Corporation Board. The heart of Scarpitti’s objection is that the Metrolinx report uses a mixture of demand models and assumptions to arrive at its conclusion, and that this is out of step with previous studies and approvals.

The Relief Line Business Case Development presentation paints a flawed picture of the ridership modelling work being undertaken by Metrolinx, in conjunction with York Region and City of Toronto staff. The vague and contradictory information being used to update the public on slide 7 regarding Line 1: Ridership Demand and Network Effects has, once again, pitted two critically needed infrastructure projects against one another, namely the Relief Line against the Yonge Subway Extension. This positioning is not supported by the ridership modelling analysis and is at odds with the advice and information presented by Metrolinx at a recent meeting.

On June 25, 2015, Metrolinx released the results of the Yonge Relief Network Study to the Board. Supported by a Stakeholder Advisory Committee and a Peer Review Panel, the Board endorsed the finding that “With the Yonge North Extension, the Yonge Subway will still be under capacity.”

The Relief Line Update uses a blend of data and methodologies to make broad assumptions about future ridership. Each subsequent ridership model claims to have better information, more detail and more sophisticated analysis. Some models include independent findings and more recently, to our objection, some have been relying heavily on market driven employment and population data, contrary to the required obligation of all municipalities to follow the Provincially-mandated “Growth Plan” numbers.

The Relief Line Update being presented to the Metrolinx Board on February 7, 2019 has, according to Metrolinx staff, blended the findings of at least three different models and does not accurately represent any of the individual modelling analyses. Slide 7 suggests that, in 2041, Line 1 will be below capacity and then over capacity when the Yonge Subway Extension is added. This is completely inaccurate – current Metrolinx modelling shared as recent as January 21, 2019 demonstrates that the Yonge Subway Extension adds a relatively minor number of riders to the peak demand location and, in no case, is it the cause of Line 1 becoming over capacity.

The facts are that only 20% of the new riders on an extension of the Yonge Subway line would be headed south of Bloor. Ridership growth on Line 1 is directly related to population and employment growth in Toronto. In fact, models show that ridership on Line 1 will exceed capacity regardless of whether the Yonge Subway Extension is constructed. We believe that by promoting the shift of as little as 10% of people from peak hour travel from the Extension to the Richmond Hill GO Line, and by using fare structure and level of service incentives, that substantial relief on Line 1 can be achieved while the Yonge Subway Extension is being constructed.

Modelling also shows that the majority of riders (80%) on the Yonge Subway Extension are headed to Toronto’s uptown employment centres north of Bloor, including St. Clair, Eglinton and York Mills. Furthermore, the Yonge Subway Extension will also serve a large number of Toronto residents that work in York Region Other initiatives are underway, or should be underway, to alleviate Line 1 capacity problems. Metrolinx’s 2015 study concluded that a number of planned and funded initiatives such as Automatic Train Control, more Rocket Trains, GO Expansion, and the opening of the Line 1 extension to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre will add capacity and offload the Line 1 demand.

These are serious challenges to the professional quality of work presented by Metrolinx planners.

The June 2015 report cited here was the Yonge Relief Network Study and it contains the quotation about the subway remaining under capacity even with the Yonge North extension. However, this depends on a number of factors:

  • The model year is 2031
  • Then-current projections for population and jobs
  • Assumed diversion levels for ridership to TYSSE and GO RER, net of demand added by new projects especially the Crosstown LRT at Eglinton

The reported projected that the volume/capacity ratio would have been 96% (2031) over the peak hour meaning that the super-peak would be above the line. The claim that the subway would still have capacity is “true” only on average and with no headroom for growth. Metrolinx planners should have known better to make that statement in 2015.

Metrolinx staff pointed out:

  • They are modelling for 2041, ten years later
  • The 2016 Census shows that core area employment is growing faster than predicted
  • Modelling now includes factors for latent demand and safety considerations at stations and platforms
  • If there is no alternate relief in place by 2041, the Relief Line North will be required

Staff also reported that although the Relief Line South approved concept (Pape to Osgoode via Carlaw and Queen) has a positive Business Case, the value is only slightly above 1.0. All six of the options were close to 1 and so the distinction between them is not as strong as the simple over/under status in the report might imply. With only a small positive margin, factors such as cost control and encouragement of Transit Oriented Development along the line will be important to maintain the supposed benefit.

CEO Phil Verster argued strongly that building the Relief Line does not preclude building other projects. His concern is to build more transit and build faster. Metrolinx is looking at (unspecified) new technology and innovation from industry to speed up the process. More than one line could be built concurrently, but the critical point is to open them in a sequence that causes the desired redistribution of demand.

Verster admitted that Metrolinx has not done enough to look at the Richmond Hill GO corridor for its potential contribution to relief.

A Board member asked whether the staff have identified a “tipping point” in safety for their studies. There is not a single value, but rather a variation from one location to another depending on local demand, station geometry and passenger flows.

Unspoken through all of this was the years of delay in admitting that a problem even exists, let alone of doing something about it. GO’s ability to provide relief has been downplayed for various reasons including the need to regrade the south end of the line to make it flood-proof, the winding valley route’s limitation of travel speed, and operational conflicts with CN’s freight traffic that limit GO capacity to Richmond Hill. Meanwhile, candidate John Tory’s SmartTrack campaign claimed that his scheme would eliminate the need for a Relief Line, and TTC projections did not raise alarms about capacity and safety issues until the situation at Bloor-Yonge could not be ignored.

“Relief” will not come from any one line or project, but from the contributions of several.

Financing and deliverability studies will be reported in spring 2019 for the Relief Line South, and a preliminary business case for the Relief Line North will be available by year-end.

This entire exchange shows the problems brought on by oversimplified presentation decks for the Board. In their oral remarks, Metrolinx staff displayed a more extensive grasp of the issues and details than contained in the Powerpoint deck.

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Superlinx: A Big Solution or A Big Con? (Updated)

Updated November 7, 2018 at 1 am: Details of the Environics poll conducted for the Toronto Region Board of Trade have been added to the end of the article. The content does not change my argument here, namely that the specifics of a new agency, its potential benefits or problems, were not presented in detail. The poll only measures a response to a generic scheme for provincial control to the extent that respondents might know about it. Of particular note, the Superlinx proposal came out in fall 2017 and had little media coverage in the period preceding the poll conducted almost a year later.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade published a proposal in November 2017 for the amalgamation of all transit agencies and operations in the “Toronto Corridor”. Ostensibly, this was written as input to the updated Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan aka “The Big Move”. However, the guiding policy framework is clear in the first paragraph of “The Board’s Vision”:

The Toronto Region Board of Trade (the Board) has a vision for a modern transit authority that is best in class globally. This regional transit authority would plan and oversee a system that pays for new lines and superior service enhancements substantially through commercialized transit related assets—not new taxes. This modern transit authority would quickly deploy smart technologies and service features systemwide, thanks to its unified planning and operations platform. It would ensure public transit land is maximized to meet housing and commercial needs. It would plan and fast‐track the delivery of a super regional transit network to meet the needs of Canada’s most populous and economically active region—the Toronto‐Waterloo Corridor (the Corridor). [p. 3]

The key point here is that transit improvements, both capital and operating, would not require new taxes. This is a political holy grail, the “something for nothing” of political dreams in any portfolio. However, at no point does the Board of Trade actually run the numbers to show that this would actually work, that the money available from “commercialized transit assets” would actually pay “substantially” for the transit the Toronto region so desperately needs.

The Board speaks of the “Corridor” with an emphasis on the Toronto-Waterloo axis, but this simply restyles a region made up of what we now call the GTHA into a larger unit, and it includes substantial areas that remain rural where transportation needs and planning policy options are very different from those of the urbanized parts of southern Ontario.

At the time, I did not comment on the scheme, but with the change in government at Queen’s Park and the arrival of dogma as the central driver of policy choices, another look is in order.

On October 31, 2018, the Board of Trade published the result of a survey which claims to show overwhelming support for complete amalgamation of transit systems. Their press release is entitled “Greater Toronto and Waterloo region voters support Superlinx concept”. However, it is by no means clear that their panel is made up of actual voters, only adults. The spin begins before we even get into the substance of the release.

This was duly covered by the media, including The Star and The Globe and Mail.

The Environics poll of 1,000 adults in southern Ontario claims:

The concept of a single regional transit agency funded by the provincial government received support from 79 percent of regional respondents and 74 percent of Toronto respondents.

It is worth noting that the article on Environics’ site, identical to the Board of Trade’s press release except for the title, is not a detailed analysis of the results. It does not include the context in which questions were placed, and so it is impossible to know exactly what people thought they were “supporting”. No margin of error is cited because of the poll methodology, according to Environics. With only 1,000 responses that are further subdivided among seven municipalities, the sample for any one of them will be quite small. The sample size and demographics for each municipality are not included, nor is there any indication of transit usage patterns among the respondents, only car ownership. With the relatively low transit usage outside of Toronto, one can reasonably assume that the poll overwhelmingly reflects the opinion of people who do not use transit as their primary or only means of travel.

Among the measures polled was “satisfaction with the local transit system”, and this ranked second lowest at 59% in Toronto with York Region, at 55%, bringing up the rear. The high, at 71%, was in Peel Region. Ironically, Toronto and York also have the lowest agreement that the “commute has worsened in the past 12 months”. There is widespread support for the concept that “regional transportation systems require a significant overhaul”, but there is no sense of what this might entail. The Superlinx scheme also has strong support, but again we do not know how it was described to respondents.

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The Sixth Worst City Myth

Recent stories beginning with the Toronto Sun, and followed by other media including Global, CTV and City, latched onto a claim from a recent study that Toronto was the sixth worst city in the world for commuting. The study from UK’s Expert Market blog writer Sean Julliard combines data from several other sites and indices to formulate a commuting index for 74 cities around the world.

Toronto likes to think of itself as a “transit city” while having severe congestion problems that are regional in scope, not simply confined to the core area which is a tiny fraction of the overall territory covered by this study. That ranking intrigued, but did not surprise me, and I set out to determine just how Toronto ranked so low in a rather long list.

Links to both an Excel and PDF version of the scores and their components are available in Julliard’s article.

First off, it is vital to understand just how these scores were compiled. Here are the components:

  • Metro population: This is the regional population, not necessarily the same as the city population. No source is cited for these values, nor is there a guarantee that other factors are drawn from the same geographic scope. For example, the population given for Toronto is almost 6 million (obviously the GTA), but the price of a monthly farecard is based on the undiscounted value of a TTC Adult Metropass.
  • The following four values come from the Moovit Insights compendium of public transit facts and statistics (Toronto page):
    • Average time spent commuting: These are transit commuting times and have nothing to do with traffic congestion except as it might affect transit vehicles.
    • Average time spent waiting for a bus or a train daily: Again, this is a transit value and appears to be a compendium of all wait times on journeys, not just the initial stage of a trip.
    • Average journey distance: This is a transit journey distance. The value shown for Toronto, 10km, lines up with information from other studies. It is slightly higher than the average for the TTC itself because regional commutes are included in the total. This is a one-way value.
    • Proportion of commuters who have to make at least one change during a transit journey.
  • The following value is derived from the Numbeo Cost of Living index (Toronto page):
    • The percentage of a monthly salary represented by the cost of a monthly transit travel card. In Toronto’s case, this is a salary for Toronto proper, and an undiscounted adult Metropass.
  • The following value is derived from the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard:
    • Average hours spent in traffic congestion over 240 days (twelve twenty-day months)

Note that most of these factors refer only to transit with only the final one having anything to do with road congestion. This did not prevent many from reporting on how the study showed Toronto with the sixth worst congestion in the world.

Julliard notes that his composite index was primarily based on two factors:

The final ranking is weighted, with cost and time spent commuting judged to be the most important factors.

He does not explain exactly how much weight each factor is given in the total score.

Toronto ranks high on the transit cost component because of our relatively expensive Metropass. Numbeo notes:

Toronto has 13th Most Expensive Monthly Pass (Regular Price) in the World (out of 444 cities).

As for congestion, Toronto sits at 49th place (with 1st being the worst), and its position is rising (bad) thanks to increased time spent by commuters in traffic.

And so we have a sixth worst ranking on Julliard’s scale because we have rotten traffic and expensive transit.

Traffic Congestion

The INRIX scores rank many North American cities, including Montréal (38th), worse off than Toronto for congestion. Los Angeles tops the list with New York (3rd) and San Francisco (5th) not far behind. On a world scale, we are better off than London (7th) and Paris (12th) among many others.

This is a very different view than presented in media reports based on Julliard’s blog.

Transit Indices

Toronto is almost at the bottom of the list for the average time spent commuting by transit at 73rd place out of 74 in Julliard’s list. This is not surprising with a very high 96 minutes spend on average claimed by Moovit. Remember that this is for a round trip, and so their value for the average one-way trip is 48 minutes. That’s a reasonable number for Toronto. It is worth noting that of the 74 cities, only 24 have values of an hour or less. Others in the 90+ list include: Portland, Miami, Istanbul, Philadelphia, Sao Paulo, Birmingham (UK), Salvador (Brazil), Rio de Janiero, Brasilia, and Bogata.

This also begs the question of the scale of transit service in various cities. It is quite likely that in the overall list, it is physically impossible to spend as much time as in Toronto on commute journeys either because the city regions are smaller, or their transit networks do not reach as far as Toronto’s.

For transit wait time, Toronto is much better off at 41st with a relatively low value of 14 minutes. We may take long journeys, but we spend less time waiting to make them.

Our journeys are comparatively long at 10km reflecting the geography of the GTA’s population and work locations, and we sit at 63rd place in the list.

As for transfers, we rank well down on the list at 69th, and that is a direct result of our transit network’s design. Most riders (73%) have to transfer at least once, and given the size of Toronto, that would be hard to avoid except with massive duplication of routes to provide many more one-seat rides. Only 17 cities in the list have a value under 50%, and they tend to be smaller than Toronto with populations averaging 1.7 million (25% of the GTA value).

Toronto is 62nd on the list for cost of a monthly travel card (a TTC Metropass) as a percentage of monthly income at 6.5%. Montreal has a value less than half of Toronto’s, and most cities in Julliard’s list fall below 5%.

Concluding Thoughts

If you want to complain that the TTC costs too much, especially its monthly pass, that’s a valid point, but it has nothing to do with traffic congestion. Travel distances and times are a direct consequence of a region that has, for the most part, built up around a road network, not around transit. Where once the “old” city with its spine of subways and frequent surface routes dominated the travel market, the city region is now overwhelmingly car-based with sprawling populations and job centres to match. This model “worked” when roads had capacity and the assumption that everyone had a car was taken as read. That is not what Toronto has become, and we now have a crisis in transportation network capacity and in the economic viability of so much travel for work and study taking so much time out of everyone’s day.

The Toronto Sun has even taken up the fight against the streetcar again lumping in the downtown know-it-alls who killed the Spadina Expressway with those who preserved the streetcar system. The fact that the vast majority of the GTHA has never seen a streetcar and manages to be hopelessly congested all the same has escaped them. Toronto being “sixth worst” is yet another reason to drag out this hobby horse.

And, of course, some of the greatest congestion lies on our “express” road network. Unlike downtown Toronto, Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York never faced the prospect of demolishing large residential areas in the name of “progress”. A plan to widen the expressways beyond lands long-ago acquired for their construction might teach folks outside of downtown just what provision of adequate road capacity would mean in their own back yards.

Julliard’s study (really a collection of data, but not a “study” in the sense of a detailed review of how the underlying numbers work and what they reveal) is a convenient jumping off point for lazy politicians (and sadly, I must say, for journalists too), but it has been used without context and with even the data it does include misrepresented. If Toronto had a cheaper transit pass, we would have ranked much better, and there would be no story, but this would have no effect on traffic congestion.

Are there problems in the GTA? Of course there are, and they start with a built form and demand pattern that are extremely difficult (impossible in places) to serve with transit. Once the roads are full, they guarantee congestion, and this will not be solved with a few subways or by getting rid of a handful of streetcar lines in Toronto’s core. The “fix” will take time, and must begin with a recognition that shifting people to transit is hard, expensive work. Simplistic, campaign-driven, vote-buying “solutions” are worthless.

Metrolinx Mulls Fare System Changes (Updated)

At the April 26, 2018 Metrolinx Board Meeting, two of the public agenda items dealt with changes in fares and in the fare collection system:

Presto Mobile is a new smartphone app that is intended to become a single point of access to Metrolinx services including fare payment and trip planning.

On the fare integration front, Metrolinx is contemplating the effects of funding announced in the 2018 provincial budget to subsidize lower fares for short GO Transit trips, and for cross-border fares between Toronto and the 905-area municipalities.

For the sake of discussion, this article assumes that the provisions in the budget will actually be implemented regardless of which party forms the government after the election in June.

Updated May 7, 2018 at 9:50 am: Metrolinx has confirmed that the double discount for GO+TTC fares would still apply to the new $3 fare within Toronto.

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Metrolinx Continues Its Pursuit of Hydrogen Trains

Metrolinx has released a long study about the feasibility of using electricity generated from hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to conventional railway electrification with overhead wires. The “Hydrail” project page contains links to both a quicky “fact sheet” and to a 353-page report. The report itself contains a 13-page Executive Summary giving a high level view of the proposals and recommendations without much of the technical detail.

It is impractical here for me to review the entire document, and indeed this is not really needed because a great deal of the content is a tutorial on hydrogen technology. The report is clearly written by people with more of a background in hydrogen technology and marketing than in railway planning and operations.

Fascinating though this is, the report does not address the most crucial issue of all – what are the implementation scenarios for hydrogen propulsion depending both on technical maturity and on policy decisions still to be made about the evolution of the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) system.

A great deal of confusion lies in the process Metrolinx is following to provision RER. Their intent is to farm the entire thing out to a private consortium:

Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) Procurement Process

Metrolinx is intending to engage a contractor to upgrade the GO network using a Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) model. As part of the tender process, bidders will be able to propose both hydrail and overhead wire technology to electrify the GO network. The benefit of this DBFOM approach is it allows one single party to manage all the interrelated decisions necessary and oversee each phase of the process from design to maintenance. This ensures optimal performance is achieved for the entire system, which can create efficiencies. [Website]

However, as the industry now stands, the information needed to allow an informed assessment of technical maturity, feasibility and risk for hydrogen trains at the scale of a GO/RER implementation does not exist. There is a lot of speculation, but it is based on much, much smaller and simpler implementations of various aspects of the technology.

The intent of the proposed study is to acquire as much information and experience as possible so that bidders can bid intelligently. The real challenge will be for this to happen before the Request for Proposals is issued at the end of 2018.

There is a subtle change in the text above to statements by Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster in 2017 when he said that it would be up to bidders to decide which technology they would choose to offer. Instead, the description above states that bidders can propose either technology and it would be up to Metrolinx and the Government of Ontario to decide which version to implement. It is quite likely that for the riskier new technology, bidders will be less willing to accept broad technical risk, and they will charge a premium for this. Whether the government of the day will see any extra costs as worth the investment remains to be seen.

Indeed, although the report states that the Cost:Benefit ratios for conventional and hydrogen options are similar, there is no mention of the risk premium a bidder might place on one option over the other. Moreover, the actual calculation of the ratio is not explained, nor are the total costs given. This raises the question of whether a higher cost is offset by a higher assumed benefit so that the ratios come out similarly, even if the magnitudes of investment differ.

At a recent Board of Trade appearance, Verster was asked about electrification, and replied with praise for Ontario’s “hydrogen economy”. It is quite clear that he drank the Kool-Aid and the government’s usual fascination with technology is getting in the way of his proper role as CEO. Immediately afterward, he reverted to the position that it is up to the would-be builders/operators of the RER network to propose technologies and the risk they are willing to assume.

Later the same day, when asked at a Metrolinx Town Hall about the possibility that hydrogen efforts would delay electrification, Verster replied with the standard response that the vendors will decide. However, the timelines for investigation of hydrogen and the contract award date suggest that a lot of work will be jammed into a very short period, and that Metrolinx’ own technical investigations will overlap the bid process.

A fundamental problem with Metrolinx “benefit cases analysis” (also misleadingly termed “business case analysis”) lies in the calculation of presumed benefits which are built up from a variety of factors. These include not just direct spending, but also the imputed value of effects such as reduced travel times, reduction of congestion and the value of environmental improvements. This side of the analysis is not present in the report, and so it is difficult to ascertain the “benefits” against which each scheme is measured. As for costs, so many elements of the hydrogen train proposal are little more than assumptions about the scalability of existing technology, it is hard to believe that the cost estimate is much beyond the back-of-an-envelope stage.

The capital and operating cost estimates presume a level of certainty about the hydrogen option which simply cannot exist at this point. Indeed, a major purpose of the planned work is to provide the technical basis on which a bidder might construct a proposal. Some capital costs included for conventional electrification are not included in the hydrogen scenario, and there is a wide variation in the range of projected operating costs.

With a planned launch of RER by 2025, the timelines are quite tight because major decisions on the infrastucture needed for either alternative must be made soon so that RER is “ready to roll” when planned.

Notable by their absence are key pieces of information:

  • What is the relationship between the timelines of the proposed hydrogen investigations and prototyping, and the timespan of the DBFOM procurement through all of its phases from initial tender up to revenue service? Can the research phase be completed in time to inform bids from potential builders/operators of the GO/RER network?
  • If the DBFOM bidders depend on investigative work done by Metrolinx or others on its behalf, what liability will Metrolinx have for non-performance if their work turns out to be incomplete or faulty, and therefore prevents the successful execution of the contract?
  • What is or will be the position of the railways, CN and CP, to the presence of hydrogen trains on their systems? Their dislike of electrical distribution and overhead structure in their territory is cited as a benefit of the hydrogen alternative, but one must ask how the railways will view the risks of a new propulsion technology co-existing with their operations.

This brings us to a fundamental question about RER and electrification, regardless of the technology. At the risk of being accused of environmental insensitivity, it must be said that electrification is not a prerequisite for RER implementation at the service levels now planned. Indeed, electrification makes the system design more complex especially where GO services operate over other railways’ territory. The tradeoffs are between many issues including the increased intrusion of more frequent GO service in corridors now hemmed in by residential development rather than by industry. This brings noise and pollution from frequent service with diesel locomotives. Even electric trains are not silent.

Reading between the lines, one might well think that full electrification is now contemplated as something for the future, in the mid 2040s, not in the 2020s. This is fundamentally tied up with questions of implementation and roll out, none of which is addressed in the report because it assumes this is a matter for future study.

Although much discussion reads as if RER will appear overnight in January 2025, Metrolinx plans to begin building up service levels from current to the RER proposal on an incremental basis as infrastructure improvements are completed. This means that a substantial portion of “RER” based on existing technology would exist before electrification, by whatever scheme, actually is “turned on”.

An important part of any implementation plan will include the mechanism by which a DBFOM bidder will take over existing assets, and this necessarily must be spelled out as part of the tender process. This will lead to two huge transitions occurring in parallel: the move from direct Metrolinx capital and operating responsibility for the GO system to a separate provider, and the technology transition from diesel to electric on some or all of the network. Whether Metrolinx has the capability to manage something on this scale, or will simply dump the responsibility in the provider’s lap and hope for the best, remains to be seen.

There is also the fantasy that the “risk” will be transferred from the government to the provider, but that risk comes at a price, and what is effectively “risk insurance” usually has a cap. Examples of capped liabilities, or even of providers walking away from their responsibilities, are not hard to find. Of course there could be problems with conventional electrification too, but they are less likely with a mature technology.

In this article, I will review the recommendations so that readers who want the “short version” can get my opinion without reading all the way to the end. In a separate future article, I will turn to specifics in the detailed report.

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Metrolinx Board Meeting and Town Hall: December 2017

Metrolinx held a Board meeting on December 7, followed on December 12 by a Town Hall.

Public questions to the Town Hall were submitted in advance and in real time during the Town Hall online, and in person by attendees. Metrolinx plans to put answers to all questions, including those that could not be handled during the Town Hall itself online in coming weeks. That record is now available at MetrolinxEngage.

My interest in both events was as much to see how the new CEO Phil Verster would handle himself especially during an open Q&A session which has not, to be kind, been part of the corporate culture at Metrolinx.

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GO/TTC Co-Fares: A Glass Half Full

Today, October 6, 2017, the Government of Ontario announced that there would be a $1.50 co-fare between GO Transit and the TTC. This long-overdue change begins, but does not fully address, problems faced by transit riders who cross the City’s border and faced a full extra fare to ride on two separate transit systems.

Ontario is lowering the cost of commuting for people in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) by introducing a 50 per cent discount for PRESTO card users who transfer between GO Transit or the Union Pearson Express (UP Express) and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), in both directions.

Premier Kathleen Wynne was at Union Station in Toronto today to announce that adult, senior and youth/student TTC riders will pay a TTC fare of just $1.50 when they use a PRESTO card to transfer to or from GO Transit or the UP Express. The discount will launch in January 2018, shortly after the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension will begin service to six new stations. For people whose regular commute includes GO/UP Express-TTC transfers, this step towards regional fare integration and more affordable transit options will save about $720 per year. [Ontario government press release]

For some types of trips, this is “good news”, but it is far from the panacea some, notably Mayor Tory, touts:

“Thanks to bold leadership at City Hall and Queen’s Park, we have found a way to give a discount to those who use a mix of our transit systems. Transit will now be more affordable for Toronto residents who ride a mix of the TTC, UP Express and GO Transit to get around the city. This agreement also moves us a step closer to make sure that SmartTrack will cost Toronto residents the same as the TTC. We need to make sure that the transit we are building and maintaining remains affordable.” [From the press release]

The primary beneficiaries of this change will be GO Transit commuters who can now use the TTC to and from a Toronto GO station (most likely Union) for the “city” end of their journeys. That $720/year saving translates to 240 round trips at $3 each. That’s 48 weeks’ worth of travel taking into account at least two weeks of vacation plus an equal number of statutory holidays.

To put this into context, the annual cost of commuting by GO from Oakville to Union is about $3,400. Someone who now uses TTC for their city trip (say from Union to Queen’s Park) would pay $1,440 in TTC fares at $3 each making a total of $4,840 for both systems. The new discount will save about 15%. Conversely someone who now walks from Union has the TTC option at a lower marginal cost than before.

This is a good deal, as far as it goes, for GO Transit riders, but the story is much different for other travellers.

Cross-boundary Travel on Local Bus Systems

Riders from Mississauga, Brampton, York Region and Durham Region transit systems will still pay two fares to cross the boundary to or from Toronto.

This will apply to riders entering the new Spadina subway extension, even if they travel to stops north of Steeles Avenue or to York University, now served directly by YRT buses.

Metropass Users

The discount only applies to riders who pay the full TTC adult fare via Presto ($3.00). Passholders will not receive any discount. This is a benefit to those who use GO a lot, and the TTC less so.

  • Cost of a monthly pass (on discount program): $134
  • Cost of 40 co-fare trips at $1.50 each: $60
  • Cost of 20 full fare trips at $3.00 each: $60
  • Total cost: $120

If the number of TTC-only trips goes up, say to 25, the combined cost ($135) would exceed the value of a Metropass.

Students and Seniors

This group of riders already travels at a reduced fare of $2.05 if they are using Presto. The discount to a $1.50 co-fare does not represent as much of a saving to them as it does to “adult” riders. This will also be true for any new group to whom reduced fares are offered such as ODSP recipients.

TTC-GO Trips Within Toronto

For riders who now attempt to make trips using both services inside Toronto, the co-fare will represent a discount over their current pricing. However, the high cost of travelling by GO will remain a large barrier to people who might move from an all-TTC route to a TTC-GO route.

For example, the monthly cost of travel using Presto from Agincourt to Union Station is $223.25 (based on 40 trips/month). Assuming that a rider will save $60 per month on TTC fares, this would still be an increase of over $160/month to commute from Scarborough to downtown via TTC and GO. That is not exactly the “equal to TTC fare” goal of John Tory’s SmartTrack, and it is unclear just who will step up to pay the subsidy needed to make it so.

Moreover, someone who is already a frequent TTC rider is also likely a passholder, and it may not be worth their while to trade in the capped price of a Metropass to “enjoy” the co-fare available on GO.

Because of inconsistencies in GO fares, the situation at Mimico is different because the monthly GO cost is only $177.70. Even so, this remains a substantial premium over a pure TTC fare, and  puts this option well beyond the means of many TTC riders.

Finally, many GO stations in Toronto are difficult to reach by transit or have only limited service. This is another barrier to “integrated” travel on GO and the TTC.

This co-fare and its subsidy are a beginning, but only a small one, toward the dual goals of reducing cross-border fare premiums and making GO more affordable within Toronto. A small cake and a few balloons may be an appropriate celebration, but hold the champagne.

 

The Next Big Move: (I) Overview

The Metrolinx Board considered its Draft Regional Transportation Plan for the GTHA on September 14, 2017 and approved its release for comment, subject to some last-minute editorial changes. This is an update of the original “Big Move” plan, and it takes the view of transportation needs and networks out to 2041.

The context for this is summarized in a covering report from Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer for Metrolinx:

By 2041, over 10 million people will live in the region. We need to plan for a future characterized not only by continued population and employment growth, but also by changing demographics (including an aging population), the changing nature of work, new transportation technologies and services, and the impacts of climate change. In short, we cannot stop. Our plan for moving forward – the Draft 2041 Regional Transportation Plan – calls for governments to move beyond The Big Move to put people’s needs at the core of planning and operations. This means:

  • Completing delivery of current regional transit projects;
  • Connecting more of the region with frequent rapid transit;
  • Optimizing the transportation system to make the best possible use of existing and future transit and transportation assets;
  • Integrating land use and transportation, and
  • Preparing for an uncertain future.

As the transportation network in the GTHA becomes more extensive and complex, travellers’ expectations will rise and transit infrastructure alone will not be sufficient to meet the needs of a growing region. Transit providers need to broaden the focus to address not just the quantity, but the quality of transit service for travellers. That means making transit more accessible, frequent, reliable, comfortable and convenient. [p 3]

This is a fine, rousing opening statement, but I must say at the outset that for all its many components, the plan falls short in a key element: shifting more travel to public transit. That is not to say that over $40 billion worth of planned investment is without value, but at the end of the next quarter century, transit’s share of the travel market will not have budged much from current levels. Autos with their associated planning focus will remain the dominant mode, especially as one moves further out from major centres such as downtown Toronto.

Just as with the original Big Move, we are running very hard just to stay in the same place. This is a dangerous situation on two counts. First, the political constituency for transit depends on its being valued by a wide cross-section of GTHA citizens. People who don’t use transit regard spending on new construction or operations as something for “them”. They wonder when there will be more roads for “us”. Second, if much of the travel is still not on the transit network, this means that transit has failed to attract its audience. This could be either because one can’t get from “here” to “there”, or because doing so by transit is simply not an acceptable way to make the journey.

There is also a fundamental political and economic problem. Getting agreement that we need better transit, and just what that entails, is hard enough, but governments change, the economy waxes and wanes, and all it takes is one bozo politician with enough clout to bring the whole process to a stop.

This is not simply a case of a streetcar hating mayor, but could be the effect of a “tax fighting” premier who sees his role as making things better for motorists and to hell with transit. Not to mention politicians at all levels playing the electorate for votes by cherry picking transit plans, not by building a network and embracing the need for frequent service beyond their ward or riding. Seeing a proposed new 25-year plan in today’s climate is a real stretch. Should we laugh or cry?

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